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“Runa,” My Poem’s Illuminating Translation from Verse to Music

By Richard Hoffman

Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic
Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo credits: Richard Hoffman

Friends ask me, “How was your trip to Prague?” and I tell them that Prague is as beautiful as everyone says. I’m thinking, as I say this, that sometimes, in a world with Instagram, Pinterest, Wikimedia, it becomes harder to experience a place, to have an unmediated encounter with it. I had been worried about that. In the weeks preceding the trip, I avoided the travel books my wife brought home from the library, resisted the temptation to let Rick Steves, via YouTube, walk me through the cobbled squares under towers and domes and historic statuary, and deliberately zoned out when friends who had been there enthused about it. I need not have worried. Prague “in person” is so richly layered and textured, no camera or travelogue could possibly have spoiled it for me.

I was there to attend the premier of a piece of music based on my poem, “Rune.” The poem is from my collection, Noon until Night, and first appeared in the anthology Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets, edited by Mark Ludwig and published by Beacon Press. Mark is Director of The Terezin Music Foundation, which commissioned Czech composer Jiří Gemrot to create the piece I had come to hear.


I sat on a folding chair in perhaps the most beautiful space I have ever been inside. Reconstructed several times, the Spanish Synagogue occupies the foundation of the oldest synagogue in Prague. During WWII, the Nazis used it to store confiscated Jewish art and artifacts to be part of their planned “Museum of the Extinct People.” Later, under the Soviets, the building fell into ruin, and its present transcendent beauty is in fact a reconstruction begun after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

As the synagogue began filling with people, now and again, through the buzz of murmured conversation, I could hear the tuning of instruments somewhere in an anteroom. The concert was part of The Prague International Spring Music Festival, and I was there with the Terezin Music Foundation’s tour. I paged through the evening's program, where the poem appeared, with a Czech translation, “Runa,” beside it:


A day nears, feast
of a saint unborn,
unlike our forebears’
or any we have known.

We know how dark
are powers kept in darkness
(a broken lock, a stopped clock,
masks and lies.)

When we wake
that unexampled day
will we believe ourselves
free or broken?

By the time the musicians, choir, and choirmaster had filed in, my anticipation was nearly unbearable.

I have heard poems of mine set to music before, with mixed results. The verb “set” has always seemed to me inadequate, suggesting that the poem needed only to be lodged or placed on a stave, its words hung out like wash on the line. But I prefer to think of it as more of a translation, carrying the same opportunities and pitfalls. As with any translation, the balance is always between faithfulness to the original and the requirement to make something that works in the new language. As the poet providing the “text” for the work (the term makes me wince), I always hope the composer will work with the music that is already there.

Although definitions of poetry are abundant and various (and limiting!), I think of a poem as a purposeful sonic structure made of words, and in that sense, it is already a song. It contains its own score, so to speak, in its rhythms, echoes, phrasings, pauses; i.e. it is written for the voice and the ear, a song sung within the parameters of the speaking voice. I always prefer, then, when a composer teases out the music he or she finds in the poem, enlarging it, making it more apparent. The ones I have liked seem to somehow illuminate the essence of the poem.

Gemrot’s composition did exactly that—and more, much more. Beginning with a string trio, he intuited and recreated the anxiety from which the poem had arisen. From the first few phrases, I felt he had “got it.” When the voices entered, at first I heard only the vowels, but as the tenors repeated the lines sung by the sopranos, I was soon deeper in the poem even than I had been writing it, when I was struggling to understand what was emerging on the page.

Cover page of Rune by Jiří Gemrot

The poem is in a somewhat fatigued, plaintive voice verging, perhaps, on despair. The music captured that distress and found enough beauty there to almost but not quite resolve the poem’s question. I had conceived “Rune” as the utterance of a solitary I speaking on behalf of a we. Sung by a choir of some thirty voices, however, it became the voice of that we and affected me profoundly. I experienced a strange distortion of time, somewhat like déjà vu; something opened and then deepened in me as I listened there, in what is truly a sacred space, by which I mean one in which transformation seems possible, in which the world as it is ceases its tyranny, loses for a moment its intractability, and offers an opening, or at least a new vista. Not every instance of déjà vu is merely a hiccup in the hippocampus. In fact, the poem was transformed there in that space, in the voices of the Martinů Voices, via the genius of the composer. The poem now understood itself, and I, the poet, with it . . . 

. . . so that the rest of that week in Prague, Gemrot’s grave music haunting me, I came to an ever deeper appreciation of the question the poem asks: crossing Charles Bridge, stopping to look at the statues of spiritual and political martyrs; walking in Wenceslas Square and thinking about how in 1968, in the space of months, the freedom of music and dancing became the brokenness of tanks and murder; touring the castle where powers were kept in darkness and St. Vitus Cathedral where the Bohemian Crown Jewels are protected by seven locks and seven keys; even noting that the Prague Orloj, the ancient astronomical clock atop the Old Town Hall, was broken. Most devastating, however, was the day we spent at Terezin, where the Nazis’ “masks and lies” concealed from the rest of the world the reality of the holocaust, dressing atrocity in art, including poetry and music. The poem belonged here. In Prague. I had written it, but it was no longer mine.

All I wanted after the concert was to meet the composer. I saw him slip through a side door of the sanctuary with a few people, and when I caught up with him there, in a cramped little sacristy, he was with his daughter and two young grandsons, one wearing headphones to listen to a recording of the concert made by Czech Radio. I introduced myself and we embraced. I only meant to say, “Thank you,” but I kept shaking his hand, clasping it in both of mine, trying to say at least some of what I’ve been trying to articulate here.

Poets often say that they don’t know where their poems come from, at least certain poems that seem to write themselves. “Rune” was one of those. But now, thanks to composer Jiří Gemrot, to the Martinů Voices, to choirmaster Lukáš Vasilek, and of course to Mark Ludwig, I know where it came from. It came from Prague. And that evening, in a beautiful building defiantly rebuilt, it was home.


About the Author 

Richard HoffmanRichard Hoffman is the author of Love & Fury: A MemoirHalf the House: A Memoir; the poetry collections Without ParadiseEmblemGold Star Road, winner of both the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Noon Until Night; and the short story collection Interference and Other Stories. He is senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @rhoffman49 and visit his website.